Associated Press has reported: “A massive coalition of U.S. Christian churches attended by 40 million people wants Brett Kavanaugh to withdraw his Supreme Court nomination.”
The report fueled a multitude of other media about this supposed “massive coalition” about which almost no readers, and likely most of the writers, had never heard.
What was this “massive” religious group?
The National Council of Churches!
Presumably its reported seven full and part-time employees are justifiably thrilled that its news release this week reiterating opposition to Judge Kavanaugh, first announced in August, ignited such reaction.
For them, it must seem like 1958 again. Articles variously claimed the NCC’s 38 member denominations have 40 or even 45 million members. “Massive” indeed.
These numbers date to many years ago. Today’s membership of all member churches is closer to perhaps 36 million. Even this number includes several denominations that haven’t counted their membership in a decade or more.
One of the NCC’s useful programs was publishing for decades an annual directory of USA and Canadian denominational statistics, which ironically chronicled the NCC’s own decline. Eventually the cash-starved NCC discontinued publication.
But with its few remaining staff the NCC still posts political statements from its small Capitol Hill office. Few heed them, and the explosive attention to the Kavanaugh statement apparently shut down the NCC’s usually low traffic website.
One commentator with over 1 million Twitter followers who gushed over the Kavanaugh statement asserted that the NCC isn’t even liberal. Such claim evinces the NCC has become so obscure that even well informed people don’t know what it is.
Highlighting the NCC is almost akin to showcasing the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which also still exists, and like the NCC also was powerful in another bygone era.
My own career of church activism began 30 years ago contra the NCC! I wasn’t long out of college and introduced a resolution to the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodism for our denomination to withdraw from the NCC and World Council of Churches. I pointed to the ecumenical councils’ support for Marxist revolutionary guerrilla groups and regimes that were decidedly repressive.
Such was their notoriety that when I asked strangers to help me distribute materials on the convention floor, after I explained the cause, they gladly responded SURE! Today, most, even at a United Methodist gathering, would not know what the NCC is.
The NCC became really controversial in the 1980s when 60 Minutes and Readers Digest reported church dollars supporting Marxist causes. Arguably the NCC never fully recovered. Founded after WWII, the NCC, like its predecessor, the Federal Council of Churches, was always left of center and left of its mostly bourgeois Mainline Protestant membership. But it didn’t turn far left until the 1960s, by which time its major denominations had begun their 50 year decline.
The Rockefellers built The Interchurch Center in New York to house the NCC and Mainline Protestant agencies. But most of those agencies, along with the NCC, shrunk and are now relocated. Once having hundreds of employees and budgets in tens of millions, the NCC now has seven employees and a budget just over $2 million.
Its largest donors have traditionally been United Methodism and Presbyterian Church USA, which once gave millions annually but now just several hundreds of thousands.
In the 1990s I attended NCC general assemblies (which no longer meet) and board meetings as a reporter. The chief topic was often budgetary crises. Even after its Cold War controversies, the NCC continued its reflexive far-left political polemics.
Few media or others typically listened, as it was clear the NCC did not meaningfully speak politically for its church-going constituents, most of whom were more conservative. Jerry Falwell by himself got more attention than the NCC, despite its claims to speak for millions.
Thirty years ago my anti-NCC resolution to the Virginia United Methodists failed partly because most clergy regarded the NCC as an important if flawed voice for ecumenism. Almost nobody believes the NCC important today.
I literally hear almost nobody discuss the NCC, pro or con. Few but some retired clergy would feel any loyalty to it. Almost no lay people know about it. My own small (but formidable!) organization, the IRD, founded in 1981 in part to critique the then large, monied and mighty NCC, now has more employees than the NCC.
This tragic demise of a once influential and morally serious Christian council can’t be celebrated. It once did embody Mainline Protestantism’s lofty ecumenical and socially conscious ethos that was so central to American civil society. There’s no meaningful successor.
The NCC’s demise is a warning to other Christians tempted to minimize historic Christian doctrine in favor of supposedly more important political activism. Forgetting its original calling to foster unity in the Body of Christ, the NCC became a parody.
Erroneous portrayals of the NCC as “massive” only underscore the loss and tragedy. But hopefully some Christians will heed the example and not do likewise.